Main Engine Cut Off

T+57: Caleb Henry

Falcon 9 Block 4

William Graham, for NASASpaceFlight:

Monday’s launch debuts a new revision to the Falcon 9, which is known unofficially as the Block 4. This upgrade increases the thrust provided by the rocket’s Merlin-1D engines and includes other upgrades ahead of a further revision, Block 5, which is expected to be introduced with Crew Dragon’s Demo-1 mission next year.

T+56: Small Launchers and Advanced Propulsion

Rocket Lab completed their investigation into what went wrong on their first launch, Virgin Orbit’s carrier 747 arrived in Long Beach, and I discuss a few NASA-backed advanced propulsion projects.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 17 executive producers—Kris, Mike, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Guinevere, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, and four anonymous—and 66 other supporters on Patreon.

AR1 Costs Climbing Past $228 Million

Mike Fabey, for SpaceNews:

The total agreement is valued at $804.0 million with the U.S. Air Force investing two-thirds of the funding required to complete development of the AR1 engine by the end of 2019, Aerojet Rocketdyne reports.

The total potential U.S. government investment, including all options, is $536.0 million, the company reports. The total potential investment by Aerojet Rocketdyne and its partners, including all options, is $268.0 million. Under the terms of the AR1 agreement, the Air Force contributions are recognized proportionately as an offset to R&D expenses.

The Air Force thus far has funded about $135.3 million of the R&D costs and ULA has funded about $9.2 million, with net Aerojet Rocketdyne applied contract costs reaching about $51.8 million, the company reports. There additional costs, such as those expensed, but not yet expensed or applied to contracts.

From a 2011 NASA report, Commercial Market Assessment for Crew and Cargo Systems (PDF, 756KB):

SpaceX has publicly indicated that the development cost for Falcon 9 launch vehicle was approximately $300 million. Additionally, approximately $90 million was spent developing the Falcon 1 launch vehicle which did contribute to some extent to the Falcon 9, for a total of $390 million. NASA has verified these costs.

T+55: ISS and Beyond

I spend some time thinking through what the future of the ISS holds, and what may come after it.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 17 executive producers—Kris, Mike, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Guinevere, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, and four anonymous—and 65 other supporters on Patreon.

NASA Contracts with BWXT for Nuclear Thermal Propulsion Project

An NTP system can cut the voyage time to Mars from six months to four and safely deliver human explorers by reducing their exposure to radiation. That also could reduce the vehicle mass, enabling deep space missions to haul more payload.

Given its experience in developing and delivering nuclear fuels for the U.S. Navy, BWXT will aid in the design and testing of a promising, low-enriched uranium-based nuclear thermal engine concept and "Cermet" -- ceramic metallic -- fuel element technology. During this three-year, $18.8-million contract, the company will manufacture and test prototype fuel elements and also help NASA properly address and resolve nuclear licensing and regulatory requirements. BWXT will aid NASA in refining the feasibility and affordability of developing a nuclear thermal propulsion engine, delivering the technical and programmatic data needed to determine how to implement this promising technology in years to come.

The company's new contract is expected to run through Sept. 30, 2019.

Nuclear thermal propulsion would be a very interesting addition to any architecture, but I really can’t stand when it’s framed in this way.

Cutting travel time to Mars from six to four months is not unique to nuclear thermal propulsion, and more importantly, getting there two months faster is pretty pointless without the most important piece: a lander.

It’d be great to see any movement whatsoever in the way of a Mars (or lunar) lander.

Thanks to July Patrons

Very special thanks to the 80 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off on Patreon for the month of July. Your support is much appreciated and helps me continually improve the blog and podcast by helping to cover infrastructure costs, gear upgrades, travel expenses for launches and conferences, and most importantly, to keep this independent.

And a huge thanks to the 17 executive producers of Main Engine Cut Off: Kris, Mike, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Guinevere, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, and four other anonymous executive producers. I could not do this without your support, and I am extremely grateful for it.

If you’re getting some value out of what I do here and want to send a little value back to help support Main Engine Cut Off, head over to Patreon and donate as little as $1 a month—every little bit helps.

There are other ways to help support, too: head over to the shop and buy yourself a shirt or a pair Rocket Socks, tell a friend, or post a link to something I’m writing or talking about on Twitter or in your favorite subreddit. Spreading the word is an immense help to an independent creator like myself.

The Continuing Mystery Saga of USA 276

Marco Langbroek has had an eye on USA 276, and I’m absolutely fascinated by his analysis. Back in June, the SpaceX-launched, Ball Aerospace-built NRO satellite, USA 276, made an extremely close approach to the ISS, right when SpaceX’s CRS-11 mission was to arrive, and right when Orbital ATK’s OA-7 mission suddenly departed early:

The curious case of USA 276 is complicated by the sheer number of “coincidences” that appear to be involved. It is very easy (and dangerous) to descend into conspiracy theory and see everything as related. For example, consider the following summary list of “coincidences.” The quotation marks in this case are to indicate that it is open to debate whether this all is coincidental or not. Some or maybe all of them likely are true coincidences, but I leave it to the reader to decide:

1. The “coincidental” similarity of the USA 276 orbit to that of the ISS;

2. The launch moment “coincidentally” resulting in a very close encounter a mere month after launch;

3. The “coincidence” that the close encounter distance stayed just outside the ISS safety zone, with a small margin only, just enough to avoid safety issues;

4. The “coincidence” that the close approach happened around the approach and berthing of a US cargo ship, Dragon CRS-11.

But there is more:

5. When the launch of the Dragon CRS-11 was postponed for technical reasons, “coincidentally” it was decided that another US cargo ship, Cygnus OA-7, was suddenly to be unberthed from the ISS, a month ahead of the original schedule, on what would have been the original arrival date of CRS-11;

6. Ball Aerospace, the same company that built USA 276, “coincidentally” also built RAVEN, an instrument to monitor spacecraft approaching the ISS that was “coincidentally” attached to the outside of the ISS only a few months before the USA 276 close encounter;

7. As a commenter on my blog remarked, one of the US astronauts on board the ISS during the close approach, US Air Force Colonel Jack D. Fischer, “coincidentally” happens to have a military background in the space intelligence community (he served in the Space and Intelligence Capabilities Office), and his presence on the ISS was “coincidentally” bumped up to the current 51/52 ISS expedition. He originally was scheduled for the later 52/53 expedition: the change in his crew assigment was announced late November 2016.
That is quite a list of coincidences.

My own take on this all is that I think it is possible, but not certain, that the close approach was deliberate and meant to test space-based technologies to monitor grapplings and berthings of third-party objects. If this is correct, I tend to see the coincidence of the flyby with the originally planned Dragon arrival, but also the sudden undocking of Cygnus OA-7 when Dragon CRS-11 was postponed, as related to the technology demonstration. The relevance of the other coincidences is more conjectural: I tend to see the rescheduling of astronaut Jack Fischer as likely unrelated, for example.

After the recent shuffling of TDRS-M and CRS-12 launch dates which delayed the CRS-12 launch until August 14, Marco noticed something else curious:

Interesting. This will bring Dragon CRS-12 at the ISS while (on current orbit) USA 276 makes another close ISS approach. Is @SpaceX aware?

I asked Marco when the closest approach would be this time around, and he said:

Difficult to say. Nominal close approach with current orbit is on or near Aug 18, but uncertainty at least a day. Also, maybe manoeuvres

A few things that make this USA 276 close approach strange:

NASA nor Boeing have divulged details about the TDRS-M incident, but its launch date slipped from August 3 to 10 which pushed CRS-12 to August 14, and then nearly immediately TDRS-M was pushed to August 20. CRS-12 is still set for August 14, even though we’re two full weeks from its original launch date of August 10—well within SpaceX’s turnaround time.

August 14 is pretty tight for a CRS-12 launch—it’d give them one or two opportunities before they’d have to stand down because of a Russian EVA happening on August 17. That Russian EVA is set to release two satellites, so CRS-12 would have to wait until their orbits are determined and can be taken into account for navigation purposes. I’m not sure why NASA would want to launch CRS-12 so tight up against a hard window like that rather than shift it back a few days now that the range is clear.

All of this is happening right when USA 276 is making its closest approach—“on or near Aug 18, but uncertainty at least a day.”

As Marco said in his article on USA 276’s first close approach, “It is very easy (and dangerous) to descend into conspiracy theory and see everything as related.” But everything related to USA 276 continues to be weird.

Once USA 276 makes a close approach to the ISS without there being a lot of activity happening outside the ISS, I’ll get off the topic.

The TDRS-M/CRS-12 Shuffle

There’s a bit of a logjam out at the Cape: the launch dates of TDRS-M and CRS-12 fell very close to each other, and they’re both high-priority missions for NASA. Chris Gebhardt explains in a post on NASASpaceFlight yesterday:

The issue then became that 10 August was the already requested and range approved launch date for the CRS-12 Dragon as well as the launch date the ISS Program had for crew scheduling and an upcoming Russian EVA on the Station.

Nonetheless, as both missions are NASA flights, the agency had the ability to internally determine which mission had priority over the other. Given an identical NET launch dates for both missions, NASA opted to prioritize TDRS-M over CRS-12.

TDRS-M was first delayed to August 10, which pushed CRS-12 to August 14. Yesterday, TDRS-M was delayed again to August 20, but due to the shuffle, CRS-12 stuck with August 14. This is also complicated by an upcoming Russian EVA on the ISS:

Nonetheless, NASA is leaving open the possibility of a further slip to TDRS-M pending final antenna replacement testing. Should the satellite incur an additional delay, NASA will reevaluate which mission has priority – a discussion, should it become necessary, that will have an added element to the equation: the fact that CRS-12 Dragon has to launch at least two days before an upcoming 17 August Russian EVA at the Station or be delayed until “several days after” that EVA is complete.

The priority decision by NASA delayed SpaceX’s launch of CRS-12 by a few days or maybe even a week, which isn’t a big deal. But given SpaceX’s single pad situation on the east coast right now, that also delays any other upcoming flights for them.

This type of situation is exemplary of something I’ve been hearing lately: that SpaceX is going to keep Pad 39A focused on government and Falcon Heavy flights while they fly commercial missions out of SLC-40. That means they could keep commercial operations flowing regardless of the shifting plans that are common with a program as complex as ISS.

T+54: Eric Berger